Penelope Shuttle: Some Thoughts on the Long Poem as an Extended Sequence
I like to both write and read very brief poems where image and idea combine in an instantaneous cleansing of perception. There is a vitality and resonance about working in a small tight compass, and a delight in reading such sequences by my contemporaries and by my poetry forebears, such as Denise Levertov, Wallace Stevens, H.D., and Witter Bynner, here in particular his New Poems 1960, which taught me so much about the power of brevity in a poem’s articulation.
I like also to combine a series of brief poems into a main theme, and variations. Here all of the very short poems share a common ground of subject matter, atmosphere, and technique, and work in unison to create the architecture of the sequence.
Sometimes the sequence is drawn from a new-to-me landscape that has embedded itself into my life, such as Ragged Stone Hill in The Malverns. I stayed, with friends, for two weeks in a farm cottage at the foot of this hill, and was captivated by the presence of this hill, at different times of day and night, and in the aspect of various weathers. I wrote these in two surges of short poems, and wove them into a running order.
My latest collection, Lyonesse, is a loosely assembled extended sequence of poems of varying lengths, whose common ground is the submerged region of West Cornwall. I use legend, myth, and contemporary marine archaeology, and my own experiences of loss, to create a journey into an under-sea world where reality is both suspended and enhanced.
Lyonesse began as a work-in-progress sequence, and gradually expanded from what I thought would be a pamphlet into a complete collection. The very first tranche of Lyonesse poems to be published (one in an early version, the other three as they would appear in the book) was in Long Poem Magazine issue 16. As it happened, a very auspicious place for the Lyonesse debut!
As I worked on Lyonesse I realised that I owed a debt to the book-length sequence, Helen in Egypt, by HD, which I have loved for many years. HD takes Helen to Egypt, and in a series of short poems she examines war, autobiography and myth; these poems have been described as unfolding ‘like the thousand petals of the lily’. HD’s poem was an affirmation for me as I worked on my own book-length sequence.
This form is a giving and absorbing one, where each individual poem acts as microcosm to the macrocosm of the overall book. It is a form that calls to me on an emotional level, both as reader and poet.
In my first full collection, The Orchard Upstairs, (1980), the title poem is made up of a sequence of short poems exploring memories of the room in my grandfather’s house where I was born. The room was later used as a store-room for apples out of the garden. I remember them from my childhood, laid out in rows on newspaper, and the lovely scent from the apples. I could have compressed these memories into a stand-alone poem, but that would not have allowed me the mingled relaxation and tension, the nuances and atmospheres available in a sequence. So, I have an instinctive affinity with the extended sequence form, and continue to explore new ways of inhabiting the form.
The various ways in which an individual poem within the sequence is self-contained, settled in its own resonance and aura, while remaining part of the living breathing organism of the sequence continues to fascinate me.